By Barbara Gutierrez

Students Iman Sami and Delphine Djomo represented the University of Miami in the Social Justice Debates, held at Morehouse College in Atlanta, that centered on the merits of desegregating schools.

At a time in which social justice issues are being discussed in many spheres of our society, two University of Miami students have distinguished themselves by placing in the top 10 on a debate devoted to an applicable topic.

Iman Sami and Delphine Djomo, students on the University debate team, represented the University of Miami in the Social Justice Debates, an annual intercollegiate series founded by Morehouse College and The George Washington University. The debates were first named the Derrick Bell Debates in memory of Bell, a lawyer, professor, and civil rights activist.

The students, both majoring in political science, were among the top in a competition that drew approximately 80 participants. The duo also made it to the semifinals. The event was held at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.

David Steinberg, associate professor at the School of Communication and director of debate, said the social justice debates are the only ones of their kind in the United States.

“This debate is not only a competition but more importantly an event to promote networking and dialogue with real changemakers. The event is an opportunity to promote progress in equality and social justice. It is based in the literature of important scholars who have contributed to that understanding,” he said.

The adoption of a mandatory racial desegregation policy for K-12 public schools is desirable” was the topic used as a catalyst for this year’s debate. The debate committee selected scholars to help frame the arguments around the topic to be discussed. One of the primary scholars this year was professor Rucker Johnson, the Chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, who has devoted years to research, publication, and activism in support of racial desegregation. He was present at the competition and served as a judge.

Both Sami and Djomo have spent more than a year researching and studying the literature of Johnson and other scholars who have written about the topic.

Over three days, the two students participated in debates in the civic format, with colleges that included the University of Vermont, the University of Rochester, and Appalachian State University. For the first time ever, Gallaudet University, a world-class institution for the deaf and signing community, participated in the debates. Translators were used to assist the deaf students.

During the competition, Sami and Djomo debated both sides of the resolution. On the affirmative, their argument stated that the national public school system is one of “academic apartheid.”

Sami pointed out that “even though there were court cases passed in 1964 to desegregate public schools, three other court cases were passed in the 90s that curtailed desegregation.” As a result, she added, because of residential segregation, low social economic status, and the way schools are funded using property taxes, Black people have been relegated to underfunded, underserved schools.

“You now have racially dense schools in urban areas that are mostly Black and schools in suburban areas that are primarily white,” she said. “We are still segregated.”

The students argued their points following the literature of Johnson, who once wrote: “True integration has the redemptive power to heal divisions. It can serve as an incubator of ideas, provide catalytic effects, and exert a gravitational pull to bring people together across racial lines. But without continual advancement, our current pattern of historical amnesia is destined to repeat its cycles. We must reckon with our racist past and present in the service of an inclusive future.”

The students argued that it is important to have plans in line to desegregate. Their motto was “Integrate Classrooms Today. Integrate the Country Tomorrow.”

“We want to fund schools equitably and support poor schools so that everyone has resources available,” said Sami. “We also want a program to bring in students across districts and redraw school boundaries.” The Miami debaters also added that in order to have true integration, the schools, faculty, and curriculums had to be more inclusive.

“What do we learn in school? Sami asked. “We learn white history and Eurocentric languages and history. It is naïve to say that we are a melting pot of cultures.”

As is customary in academic debate, Sami and Djomo were ready to defend the negative side of the argument as well.

This included arguments that said desegregation was detrimental to Black students because they were taken out of ethnically “safe spaces” and put in white schools where they would be subjected to micro aggressions, taunting, and enhanced supervision and discipline by school officers who traditionally kept a closer eye on minority students.

“These students would be traumatized,” Sami said.

Steinberg said that both his students are “outstanding” debaters.

“Delphine and Iman are talented debaters on any topic,” he said. “They have been doing extensive research over several years on social justice and their interaction as women of color personalizes the topic and allows them to interact with the material in a powerful way.”

After the debates were finished, Johnson seemed emotionally touched, said Sami.

“He told us that if he were to pass today or tomorrow, he felt happy to leave the world in our hands,” she said.

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